Tomorrow we commemorate the enlightenment of the historic Buddha. I would have loved to have been at Rohatsu this year because it is one way to deepen my practice and share in the power of community. But that wasn’t to be and, in many ways, it turned out for the best. I had the good fortune to spend last week at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) on a week-long retreat on the Abhidhamma taught by Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki. While there I also had the terrific opportunity to meet resident scholar Mu Soeng whose book, The Heart of the Universe: Exploring the Heart Sutra, is a worthwhile read for its interesting translation of the Prajnaparamitta.
There were many things to love about BCBS as a venue. Private rooms are definitely a plus. There aren’t many but for a small retreat (about 20 people) there were ample. The farmhouse and surrounding forest evoke the deep silence that fosters deep practice. Of course, it’s a study center so we can be forgiven for the occasional wildness; I think someone had two servings of the carrot cake!
The course itself was a challenge for me and not just because I haven’t actually dug into the Abhidhamma in any detail. My classmates were an astonishing lot. A sales manager, a health fund manager, a teacher, an executive of an IT firm, a couple of mindfulness program teachers, and a few folks from areas of Buddhist practice that intimidate me. Never mind. They all intimidated me. And they filled me with envy for their facility with Pali, the suttas, and all manner of questioning the structure and form of the canon. It made me wonder if my years in Zen has been a total waste with regard to actually understanding anything about Buddhism.
As I wandered the book-ladened rooms of BCBS, I reflected on the seeming inaccessibility of the Mahayana sutras and equally seeming accessibility of the Pali Canon. In part, it may be the way in which each is conveyed and taught; in part it may be that my own experience of Zen is one of unrelenting practice with little to ground it beyond studying the Heart Sutra and dharma talks on Dogen. There’s no question that the current love affair with Neuro-Buddhism has put a definite cramp in actually learning and practicing Buddhism but that’s a matter for a different post.
Waking up to the real nature of one’s own practice is important. After all, that is the intent of all those hours cultivating the mindfulness muscle. Reflecting on my own path, it seems I’ve delightfully flowed with traditions whose teachers (authors) and sanghas were welcoming and able to convey the ways of practice that were helpful at the time of contact. That’s quite typical. We gravitate to the sources of warmth and comfort which take away – or promise to take away – our suffering. And to be honest, I’ve rarely resonated with teachers outside the Zen tradition.
Then I met jhana teacher Leigh Brasington who was at the same retreat and in our chats about the different yanas and what they demand of us, he called himself a “suttayana-ist.” I liked that. It pretty much sums up the totality of Buddhism. Then again, when you read (yes, you must) Bhikkhu Sujato’s History of Mindfulness, you may wonder which sutta are we yana-ing after!
Well, I have no answers. Not for me and definitively not for you. I do know that I am hungry for a bit of scholarship that, like my defunct septic bed, is not buried in collapsed layers of impenetrable metaphors. It’s hard not to feel that way immersed in rooms like these. But that may just be another delusion that will set back my potential for enlightenment. But that should not stop you. Have a rousing awakening tomorrow!